An illustration of Brooklyn City Hall

Brooklyn City Hall, completed in 1848. (Courtesy of the New York Public Library)

Book Explores the Centuries-Old Influence of ‘Protestant Brooklyn’

Professors Glenn Altschuler, PhD ’76, and Stuart Blumin take a deep dive into the borough once known as the ‘city of churches’

By Beth Saulnier

What comes to mind when you think of Brooklyn? The bridge? Hipster culture? Perhaps a certain Major League Baseball team that decamped to L.A.—and the sore feelings that persist, more than six decades later?

How about straight-laced Protestants, a half-dozen or so generations off the Mayflower?

The latter—as surprising as it may seem—are at the center of a new cultural history by a pair of prominent faculty.

Published by Cornell University Press’s Three Hills imprint, The Rise and Fall of Protestant Brooklyn traces how an influx of New Englanders made an indelible mark on the borough—and how the arrival of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Italy, Germany, and elsewhere challenged that hegemony to form the vibrant, diverse community we know today.

A photo of Glenn Altschuler (right) & Stewart Blumin
Authors Blumin (left) and Altschuler. (Provided)

The book is the latest collaboration by Glenn Altschuler, PhD ’76, the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies, and Stuart Blumin, a professor emeritus of American History and former director of the Cornell in Washington program.

The two previously produced The GI Bill: The New Deal for Veterans and Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.

Cornellians invited Altschuler and Blumin to chat about their new book via Zoom; the conversation has been edited and condensed.

What’s your personal relationship to Brooklyn?

Altschuler: I was born in Brownsville, and before I came to Cornell as a graduate student in 1971, my family lived in different neighborhoods, including Flatbush and Sheepshead Bay. My father worked in a shoe store in Downtown Brooklyn—named, believe it or not, Cornell Shoes.

I was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, and I worked at a clothing store in an Italian neighborhood when I was in high school and college.

The cover of "The Rise and Fall of Protestant Brooklyn"

But the irony is that Stuart, who is an urban historian and is from Miami, knows Brooklyn much better than I do.

Blumin: I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but Brooklyn is a special place for me. As Glenn said, I was born in Miami—the “sixth borough.”

After World War II, a lot of people moved there from Brooklyn. Many of the boys in my second-grade class were from Brooklyn.

And this was the precise moment when the Brooklyn Dodgers became a serious threat to win the National League pennant. So to save my life, I became a very avid Dodgers fan.

Why is Protestantism the lens through which you explore the borough’s history?

Blumin: Brooklyn has a very peculiar origin. A number of New Englanders migrated to New York City in the early part of the 19th century to make a buck. Boston was kind of going downhill; ports like Salem, Newburyport, and New Haven had had their day.

In 1814, a steam-powered ferry connected Manhattan with Brooklyn, which was a tiny village across the river. Brooklyn Heights is sometimes called America’s first suburb; it became a place where some of these wealthy merchants, bankers, and brokers built their homes.

These guys retained a good deal of the serious piety that went along with being descendants of the Puritans. They dominated Brooklyn, and this domination survived for a long time. There was a New England Protestant hegemony, which gave Brooklyn a special character. Part of it was that it was not Manhattan, which was “Sodom.”

There was a New England Protestant hegemony, which gave Brooklyn a special character.

Stuart Blumin

Altschuler: We chart that domination, and the challenges to it by two waves of immigrants: Irish and Germans in the mid-19th century, and Italians, Jews, and other Eastern Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Blumin: Glenn and I are the children or grandchildren of those immigrants. We dedicated the book to our parents, whom we identify as first- and second-generation Americans. So this book had resonance for both of us.

Altschuler: Brooklynites called Brooklyn the “city of churches,” and boasted that it had as many or more churches per capita than any other city. There were debates over whether horse cars should be allowed to run on Sundays—

Blumin: It took three years to settle that!

An illustration of a Brooklyn "sanitary fair"
The 1864 Brooklyn “Sanitary Fair,” which raised funds to treat wounded Civil War soldiers.

Altschuler: It makes for a fascinating story, and you add to that the challenge posed not only by immigrants but by secularization, commercialization, and privatization.

We felt that we had what we subtitled “an American story,” because it reflects many of the social and cultural changes that characterize the United States—even though we believe that Brooklyn was unique, and uniquely important.

You mentioned that Brooklyn’s story is quintessentially American. How so?

Altschuler: The challenge posed by immigrants and ethnic diversity to the self-image of the U.S. as a Protestant Christian nation is an American story—as is the emergence of cultural pluralism as part of the American creed, which was anticipated by the lived experience of immigrants in Brooklyn.

Blumin: That’s exactly right. And it’s really important. We’re historians, not journalists; we’re not writing about current events. But it was impossible not to see the contemporary relevance, because of the resurgence of white nationalism in America.

Altschuler: Readers are free to make the connection—and we hope they will.

Blumin: The closest we come to an editorial statement is in the epilogue. It’s obvious where we stand on the subject: as the children of immigrants, and as people who live in America and love America, we see how this country is renewed by new people, constantly.

What did you learn about the relationship between Brooklyn and Manhattan that readers might find surprising?

Altschuler: People may not be aware of the persistence of condescension by Manhattanites against Brooklynites. It’s there in unmistakable ways, and it helps shape Brooklyn’s distinctive identity.

A vintage map of Manhattan and Brooklyn
Seeds of the Big Apple: New York City, the City of Brooklyn, and the Village of Williamsburgh in 1834.

There were theaters in Manhattan; in Brooklyn, the Protestants fought against them. That was a matter of pride for the Brooklynites, and of condescension on the part of the Manhattanites.

We also got a sense of the different ways that the bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan changed the relationship.

The names of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Williamsburg Bridge matter; they say something about the perceptions that Manhattan and Brooklyn had about both places.

Blumin: The river between the two is called the East River, not the West River. That’s from the point of view of Manhattan. But Brooklyn is vast: it’s 81 square miles and it has 2.5 million people. No other “town across the river” was as big, important, or vibrant as Brooklyn. Camden, NJ, isn’t quite in the same category.

And Brooklyn was shaped by Manhattan, often by negative reference to it: “We’ve created this pious world, this superior place over here.” Mind you, a lot of guys probably went to the theater in Manhattan on Saturday night before going to church in Brooklyn on Sunday.

Altschuler: Many, many professionals lived in Brooklyn and worked in Manhattan. And Brooklyn was unique during the workweek, at least in terms of professionals: it was populated by women, because the male professionals worked in New York.

What your favorite character whom you discovered in your research?

Altschuler: Mine is Canon William Sheafe Chase. As Protestantism was in decline, he persisted and resisted, in every conceivable venue. He wanted to maintain Protestant domination by keeping away Sunday baseball, putting in place Prohibition, and banning motion pictures.

He never gave up. He underscores the persistence—even when the Protestants, who had been dominant, were totally outnumbered and outgunned.

Brooklyn was unique during the workweek, at least in terms of professionals: it was populated by women.

Glenn Altschuler

Blumin: I have a couple of people I really like. One who has a very small part in the book is Maude White Hardie. She was a member of a Baptist church in Stuyvesant Heights, and she wrote poems and songs.

This was right around the turn of the 20th century, when a number of Protestants were reacting negatively to immigrants. She wrote that, on the contrary, she took it as her religious responsibility to promote the idea of brotherhood.

Given that these days, Brooklyn is widely seen as hipper and more of a cultural bastion than Manhattan, did the borough come out on top?

Altschuler: Well, the rents are higher. (He laughs.) I think Brooklyn is always going to be the striving younger brother of Manhattan. In the sense that Brooklyn has become a wonderful place to live that has extraordinary ethnic neighborhoods, restaurants, and other things—it’s a winner. To the extent that the Brooklyn Dodgers left, it will always be a loser.

Blumin: New York is always changing. There’s a lot of interest in Queens these days.

So are the other boroughs going to get the Altschuler-Blumin treatment?

Altschuler: If you’re asking whether people should expect our two-volume history of Staten Island, the answer is a resounding no.

Blumin: Or as they put it in Brooklyn: Fuhgeddaboudit!

Never on a Sunday

In an excerpt, as the Protestants begin to lose their grip, Brooklynites tussle over Sabbath-day restrictions

The Christian Sabbath was another battlefield over the purposes and power of Yankee propriety. From the early days of the village era Brooklyn passed and enforced, with variable success, Sabbatarian laws prohibiting activities ranging from playing ball to selling alcoholic drink.

A new Sunday closing law passed in 1852 led to renewed enforcement efforts by temperance mayors Edward A. Lambert and George Hall. A particularly energetic advocate of a dry Sabbath, Hall enjoyed touring Brooklyn on Sundays with several policemen in tow to test whether the side and back doors of taverns and groceries were tightly closed.

Perfect enforcement was impossible, of course, but skirmishes between violators and public officials, often based on differences in social class and ethnicity, rarely became public controversies.

An illustration of Green-Wood Cemetery
Green-Wood Cemetery, incorporated in 1838, is home to the eternal repose of many borough luminaries.

One Sabbatarian issue that did become a public battle emanated from the Common Council’s decision in 1853 to withhold from the newly formed Brooklyn City Rail Road Company the right to run horse cars on Sunday.

Apart from an almost instinctive tendency to forbid any secular activity on the Sabbath, the council was responding to the fear that “rowdies” from New York would come to Brooklyn on the ferries, ride the cars, and disturb the quiet observance of the Sabbath, not only in the churches but on the private lands of farmers and suburbanites in the outer wards.

Almost immediately, this decision met with opposition, especially from those who sensed a motive based as much on social class as on religion.

The council was responding to the fear that ‘rowdies’ from New York would come to Brooklyn on the ferries, ride the cars, and disturb the quiet observance of the Sabbath.

It would not necessarily be rowdies who would fill the Sunday cars, they argued, but sober workingmen who, with their families, sought the simple pleasure of green fields and open sky after six days of toil in the confinement of Manhattan workshops.

Seeking not just a rural retreat but the ability to attend churches distant from their homes—not a violation of the Sabbath but its very fulfillment—Brooklyn’s own workers would suffer as well.

Wealthy Brooklynites could take their carriages to attend any church in the city, visit Green-Wood [Cemetery], or go wherever they pleased, without any restriction on their movement. Why should the poor be circumscribed?

These arguments appeared in 1854 in a long letter to the Star from Walt Whitman. Warming up, perhaps, for the following year’s publication of Leaves of Grass, Whitman wrote:

An illustration of a church in Brooklyn
The Church of the Pilgrims—now Our Lady of Lebanon, a Maronite Catholic house of worship—still stands today.

“The citizen must have room. He must learn to be so muscular and self-possessed; to rely more on the restrictions of himself than any restrictions of statute books, or city ordinances, or police. This is the feeling that will make a great, athletic, spirited city, of noble and marked character, with a reputation for itself wherever railroads run, and ships sail, and newspapers and books are read.”

Not realizing they had a great poet in their midst, most Brooklynites—save for one who wrote a send-up of Whitman’s prose three days later—appeared to have ignored his eccentric essay. But opposition to the council’s decision was not ignored.

Meetings were held and petitions filed, including at least two from South Brooklyn arguing that the 8th ward would become nearly uninhabitable if horse cars ran through it on Sundays.

The arguments for and against the Sunday cars raged on for nearly three years, coming to a head in the spring of 1857. Pious men such as ex-mayor Lambert argued at a public meeting in March that Brooklyn’s Sabbatarian law “was at the foundation of all our institutions, and that the common law recognized the binding obligation of the Christian Sabbath.”

Sundays in Brooklyn already saw more crime than any other three days of the week, according to Lambert, and the Sunday horse cars would destroy the “quiet and sanctity” which made Brooklyn a desirable place to live. He and his family walked two miles to church each Sunday; they did not need or want horse cars to get there.

Fisher Howe, a City Rail Road Company director and the owner of land in the outer wards, reminded the assembled gentlemen that the “green fields” some proponents of the Sunday cars spoke of as valuable resources for urban working people were also private property whose owners did not welcome trespassers.

An illustration of the Brooklyn Academy of Music
The Brooklyn Academy of Music opened in 1861 to provide non-scandalous entertainment.

Livingston Miller, a former resident of Staten Island, amplified the reasons for Howe’s concern, reporting that the New Yorkers who came to the island on Sunday “kept up such a perpetual riot, as to interrupt public worship, and committed such depredations as greatly to diminish the value of property. People had to stay away from church to watch their property.”

The Eagle’s response, especially to Lambert’s remarks, was scorching: “In one breath, Sunday in Brooklyn is a saturnalia of crime; in the next it is so quiet and heavenly that people live in it on that account. It is unnecessary to reply to arguments like these; we prefer to let them demolish each other.”

As for his family’s weekly two-mile trek to church: Fine, and they can “wear peas in their shoes” if they want to, but “they have no right to demand that everybody else shall do the same.”

From The Rise and Fall of Protestant Brooklyn: An American Story, by Stuart M. Blumin and Glenn C. Altschuler, a Three Hills book published by Cornell University Press. Copyright © 2022 by Cornell University. Included by permission of the publisher.

Top: Brooklyn City Hall, completed in 1848. All illustrations in this story courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Published September 20, 2022.


Comments

  1. Sam Beck

    I wish Blumin and Altschuler would have brought their history up to date and compared the influence of Protestants with the influence of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidim.

    Their book is an important contribution to Brooklyn’s history! Thank you for writing it!

  2. Heather Quinlan

    I wish Mr. Blumin and Mr. Altschuler would have taken a less snide (and tiresome) approach to Staten Island. The idea of starting a new book after just finishing one is no doubt daunting, but why, especially from an academic standpoint, would Staten Island cause such a negative reaction? They had just as rich a Protestant history, gorgeous Dutch Reformed Churches, an AME Zion Church that’s a National Landmark, and an Underground Railroad made possible by these selfsame congregations and others. Plus a Scandinavian/Lutheran heritage that few know about (but which brought us David Johansen). But having said all that, perhaps ultimately it’s better they didn’t try and tackle the Forgotten Borough after all.

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